Easthampton explores pathways for municipal internet

  • Easthampton Precinct 3 City Councilor Thomas Peake is working on plans to bring municipal internet to city residents. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Brett Sayles/via Pexels   Brett Sayles/via Pexels 

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2019 4:30:31 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Voters will decide whether the city should establish a municipal light plant in November, but the city’s Telecommunication Advisory Committee has already been vetting potential avenues for municipal broadband internet in the event the proposal passes.

The committee held a public hearing Sept. 11 where members presented on the panel’s research and noted that neighboring communities have reached out to the city for a possible partnership in providing high-speed fiber-optic internet service.

Approval by voters would grant the city the option to establish a municipal light plant (MLP) said District 3 City Councilor and committee founder Thomas Peake, who noted there would be no cost until the city decides to move forward with the project. An MLP is a city-owned entity empowered under state law to provide utilities such as electricity, gas and internet to homes and businesses; a total of 41 MLPs have been created in Massachusetts, including in Holyoke and South Hadley.

“Many of those communities have been rolling out municipal internet, and what they’re often getting are internet services that are faster, reliable and more affordable than the private sector,” Peake said in an interview Friday.

Currently, most households in the city use Charter Communications — known as Spectrum — as their internet service provider, Peake said. There is not much room for private-sector competition, which led him to start exploring the possibility of Easthampton generating its own internet service.

One of the biggest questions, he said, was how the city would finance its initial rollout costs of pole infrastructure and telecom huts. Some cities have increased property taxes to pay for such utilities, others through bonds and reserve funds — but Peake said the city is exploring other options.

The committee identified three possible avenues for an MLP rollout to the public: one being a potential public-private partnership; another, the city financing the project alone; and a third option being a partnership with a nearby town to mitigate operational costs. According to presentation slides from the meeting, the first option could cost $12-$15 million, while the second could cost $8-$10 million. Peake did not have a cost estimate on partnering with another city.

Though it wasn’t brought up at the meeting, Peake said the cities of Holyoke, Westfield and Greenfield had all reached out to the committee, expressing interest in a partnership. In a partnership, the other city could essentially provide and maintain the utility through an expansion of existing services and take a percentage of the overall revenue.

If the city did take this route, Peake said, there would have to be some borrowing for initial infrastructure costs on behalf of the city, but that it would likely be less than the $8-$10 million the city would have to find if it started the endeavor alone.

“We’re looking at maintaining a good credit rating and staying under our debt ceiling,” he said.

A partnership would save money in the long run as Easthampton would not have to pay for ongoing costs including maintenance, customer support and billing, he said.

If an Easthampton MLP partnered with another community, Peake said, it could be almost self-sustaining — after Easthampton’s partner’s share was paid, the rest would essentially be all revenue. Peake envisions a slow rollout for the service, saying that once enough revenue is collected from one neighborhood, the city could use the funds to both expand and pay off the initial borrowing.

He said he did not want to see profits from the service to go straight into the city’s general fund. Instead, he said he would like to see the money go into a fund for maintenance and potential upgrades to the system if there is no partnership.

Peake said the city could even send some of the revenue to public organizations such as Easthampton Media.

“We want this to be a community partner — it has the potential to bring in a very substantial amount of money,” he said.

At the meeting, members of the committee also presented results of a survey taken by over 600 residents. Though Peake said he would not have “statistical confidence” that the survey was a good representation of the entire community based on how many people took it, he did think it showed the opinions of those who are interested in the service.

Of the 614 responses, 70 percent said price and reliability were their top priorities, followed by download speed at 61 percent. Peake said these were all achievable goals, adding that if it were up to him, the city would provide 1-gigabit download speeds directly to homes. 

“It seems to be the gold standard,” he said.

Peake reiterated how internet pricing would be comparable or better than current private providers. For example, WHIP, Westfield’s city-owned internet service, provides up to 1-gigabit service at $70 a month; Charter offers at least 100-megabit download speeds — about one-tenth as fast — for $45 a month.

“There needs to be some price-competitive options or else it’s probably not going to work,” Peake said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 


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